Paris is awash with visions of melancholy and esoteric variants of romanticism this autumn, both of which tend to put me in a very good mood. There's “Mélancolie” and “Vienne 1900” at the Grand Palais; the first retrospective of the neglected Girodet at the Louvre; and now a contemporary group show devoted to new manifestations of Symbolism in the work of young artists (mostly based in London and Paris) at Espace EDF Electra. (The cultural exchange between the two cities is also an amuse-gueule to the roughly twenty exhibitions of French contemporary art to be held simultaneously in London next October.)
The glass-fronted site of “Le Voyage intérieur” is a renovated Art Nouveau power station in the 7th Arrondissement, just steps away from Le Bon Marché and the best other top shopping destinations. While I was looking forward to seeing what could be done with the theme of “la Décadence,” I also knew that the show was going to be impossible to get a handle on during the opening, so I opted for the press preview instead. When I arrived, there were maybe five other people wandering around the blacked-out and drastically configured space, in addition to the seven or eight people directly involved with the show standing awkwardly by. (With its three floors, central two-story well, mezzanine, and slick glass elevator, the venue is well suited to design shows, though perhaps less so to art.)
As I walked down a newly erected and appropriately gloomy “Metaphysical Corridor,” illuminated by fake, fluorescent-lit cutout “windows” and mechanically fanned dark blue transparent curtains (shades of De Chirico or “The Turn of the Screw”), I ran into London gallerist couple Cornelia Grassi and Tomasso Corvi-Mora. “This show could never be done in London,” Grassi enthused, implying that the scenography would be thought too kitschnot empty-white-space enough. Having seen little of the art yet, apart from a handsome bronze bust of a helmet-haired androgyne by London artist Enrico David, I was inclined to agree. Both gallerists have artists in “Le Voyage”: Grassi represents Silke Otto-Knapp, whose smallish, Klimtesque paintings of hieratic dancers look highly appealing in the peacock-blue, double height “Salon Egyptien,” while Corvi-Mora shows Roger Hiorns, whose big, black, freestanding metal sculpture, reminiscent of '60s-era Anthony Caro, is hard to make out (and thus doubly mysterious) in the black-walled “Unknown Pleasures” gallery on the ground floor.
Walking upstairs, I found myself in an even darker, latex-lined room, dubbed the “Black Vampire Rubber Zone.” Here I encountered one of the curators, Alex Farquharson, who regaled me with some surprising arcana, such as the fact that the show was inspired by Joris-Karl Huysmans novel À Rebours (1884), that benchmark of fin-de-siècle decadence. According to Farquharson, he and Alexis Vaillant, the show's French curator, along with young scenographer Nadia Lauro, had tried to imagine what the reclusive hero Des Esseintes’s house “would look like today.” (“Not like this,” I said to myself. “Come over to my place.”) Farquharson explained that the hors concours presence in the show was that of Richard Hawkins, a Los Angeles-based artist who had spent time in Paris studying Symbolist texts. But that's not why I liked Hawkins's Chinese lantern collaged with male porn so muchit had more to do with the fact that two similar objects, minus the raunchy veneer, once hung in my own studio apartment.
Returning to the show that night, which was appropriately cold, dark, and rainy (“un temps de chien,” the French would say), “Le Voyage” seemed more effectively creepy. There were a couple of limos outside; a few corporate types getting guided tours of the show; a pert little white tent that housed only a cloak room (no bar in sight); and a slightly bedraggled art-world contingent. The biggest group was gathered in the “Club Salo” gallery, where British artist Adam Chodzko's Reunion: Salo, 1998, was on view. Chodzko's piece, which documents a search for the now-grown children who appeared as nude extras in Pasolini's 1976 film masterpiece, prompted the most respectful response of the evening. With its nods to the French ideals of le cinema, l'erotisme, and le policier, Reunion: Salo had them worshipping yet again at the auteur's altar. Curator Bill Arning reminisced about his seeing the film when he was fifteenhow shocking it had seemed then, and how staid and august it all seemed now. Even Chodzko's snippets of nude kids being led around, on leashes and on all fours, by those cruel Italian fascists seemed to induce a very studious response.
Contrasting with all this darkness was an upstairs room called “Infinite White Cube.” This was the utopian epicenter of the show, a tongue-in-cheek paean not only to Jay Jopling's London gallery but also, the curators insist, to an all-white room in the Belgian Symbolist Fernand Khnopff's Brussels house, long since destroyed. Suffused in neon light, the room, a scenographic conceit by Lauro and the curators, looked cool and funny: a Light and Space piece run amok. Inside it was a soft floor sculpture by the French artist Vidya Gastaldon, with yellow velvet “pillows” recalling the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz. “Ca fait du bien, cette lumiere,” exclaimed one female viewer, as the room pulsed with electricity. In the gloomy climes of Northern Europe in November, the “Infinite White Cube”and “Le Voyage intérieur” in generalwere a welcome bright spell.